Cracking a long stalemate, Egypt and Israel agreed today on a limited and incomplete list of powers to be exercised by a Palestinian self-rule authority in Gaza and the West Bank.
The accord, called tentative and admittedly only a beginning, nevertheless was depicted by high U.S. officials as sufficient progress in the long-stalled Palestinian autonomy negotiations, which were specified in the Egyptian-israeli peace treaty signed in Washington last March.
It came in the eighty plenary negotiating session, held in the Israeli coastal resort of Herzlia and for the first time presided over by President Carter's new Middle East envoy, Sol Linowitz.
Linowitz flew here after the session for talks with members of the Saudi royal family, whose attitude is considered crucial to overcoming Palestinian and other Arab opposition to the autonomy talks. The Saudi stand has become even more critical in recent weeks, because of an implicit link between Saudi backing of Palestinian demands and U.S. efforts to enlist Saudi cooperation in Persian Gulf security arrangements.
With these broader needs in mind, U.S. officials on Linowitz' plane made a concerted attempt to portray the two days of talks as successful, pointing out that they produced the first Egyptian-Israeli agreement on points of substance since the meetings began last spring.
At the same time, they made it clear that the agreement on "16 or 17" self-rule powers resolved none of the major issues: control over land, security, water, Jewish settlements or the formerly Arab-governed East Jerusalem.
"But we've come a lot farther than most people thought we could come," said a high U.S. official who briefed correspondents.
Egypt's agreement on the list of powers marked a noticeable retreat from earlier position. Egypt previously had insisted, at least in public, that all powers exercised by Israeli military and civilian occupation authorities must be turned over to the future Palestinian administration. It had rejected Israeli proposals to define the autonomy powers in detail, from the bottom up, and urged instead that the negotiations work down toward detail from the principle of full autonomy.
In a reflection of Egyptian sensibilities on this point, Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil of Egypt revailed on Linowitz and the Israeli negotiating counterpart, Interior Minister Josef Burg, to keep secret the specific points of agreement.
"I was overruled on this," said Burg at a news conference in Herzlia, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
U.S. officials insisted, however, that the Egyptian concession came in return for parallel Israeli concessions. Israeli negotiators agreed to significantly broader self-rule powers than those contained in the Israeli autonomy model, proposed in late December and rejected by Egypt, they said.
"The Egyptians did not come out losers on this," said one official.
Linowitz and Burg urged disclosure of the powers agreement because they felt this could be cited as proof that the nine-month-old talks are not deadlocked, said sources involved in the negotiations.
Khalil's insistence on keeping them quiet underscored Egyptian concern about Arab charges that Cairo is selling out of Palestinians and using the autonomy talks to put an honorable mask on a unilateral peace with Israeli.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat frequently has scorned his Arab critics, but Khalil and the Egyptian deputy foreign minister, Butros Ghali, are known to be eager to avoid irrevocably cutting ties with the rest of the Arab world.
Khalil apparently felt disclosure of today's agreement while major questions remain unsettled would put Egypt in an unflattering position, U.S. officials said. At the same time, withholding announcement of the powers agreement deprived Linowitz of selling points he could use in his talks with the Saudi leaders, they added.
Despite a request from U.S. ambassador John West, it was uncertain tonight whether the Saudi monarch, King Khalid, would agree to see Linowitz. Talks with Crown Prince Fahd, who makes most important Saudi decisions, and Prince Saud, the Princeton-educated foreign minister, were on the schedule for his one-day stay here.
Despite the first substantial progress in the autonomy talks, it was clear that the fundamental views of Egypt and Israel on Palestinian self-rule remained far apart, and overall agreement was still distant. Linowitz would not predict success by the May deadline, and today's accords were described in a communique as "tentative" because they were reached with the understanding they could collapse if the talks fail to solve other issues.
The powers agreed on were acknowledged to be the easiest and most obvious -- education, for example. More critical issues, such as who polices the West Bank and who controls public land, will require political decisions at a higher level, analysts said.
Special working groups, including Egyptian and Israeli ministers, will attack these tough issues, the communique said.Egyptian and American officials have acknowledged that the major questions probably will require another Camp David-type summit for final resolution, although Linowitz has said Carter has no intention of getting personally involved in the talks.